The traditions of the elders.
Christian oral tradition in century II.
Some of our many sources for primitive Christianity.
Irenaeus at a number of points in Against Heresies
refers to the traditions of the elders. Some have thought that (at least some of) these
traditions stem from Papias. Irenaeus, who flourished
in the late second century in Lyons, France, wrote in Greek, but most of his work survives
only in Latin translation. The original Greek is available only from patristic quotations.
The traditions that he cites from the elders are often reckoned among
the apostolic fathers.
Clement of Alexandria, a slightly later contemporary of Irenaeus from the opposite
end of the empire, also transmits at least one saying under the name of the elders.
I include the numbers with which William R. Schoedel identifies each text in
The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and
Commentary, pages 124-127. Schoedel numbers only the Irenaean quotations.
Against Heresies 2.22.5
(Greek portion from Eusebius,
History of the Church 3.23.3;
Illi autem, ut figmentum suum de eo quod est scriptum
vocare annum domini acceptum affirment, dicunt uno anno eum praedicasse,
et duodecimo mense passum, contra semetipsos obliti sunt, solventes eius
omne negotium, et magis necessariam, et magis honorabilem aetatem eius
auferentes, illam inquam provectiorem, in qua et docens praeerat universis.
quomodo enim habuit discipulos si non docebat? quomodo autem docebat
magistri aetatem non habens? ad baptismum enim venit nondum qui triginta
annorum; ita enim, qui eius annos significavit Lucas, posuit: Iesus autem
erat quasi incipiens triginta annorum, cum veniret ad baptismum; et a
baptismate uno tantum anno praedicavit; complens tricesimum annum passus
est, adhuc iuvenis exsistens, et qui necdum provectiorem haberet aetatem.
quia autem triginta annorum aetas prima indolis est iuvenis, et extenditur
usque ad quadragesimum annum, omnis quilibet confitebitur; a quadragesimo autem et
quinquagesimo anno declinat iam in aetatem seniorem, quam habens dominus noster
docebat, sicut evangelium
*et omnes seniores testantur, qui in Asia apud Iohannem discipulum
domini convenerunt, id ipsum tradidisse eis Iohannem. permansit
autem cum eis usque ad Traiani tempora.*
quidam autem eorum non solum Ioannem, sed et alios apostolos
viderunt, et haec eadem ab ipsis audierunt, et testantur de
* This portion is available in Greek from Eusebius,
History of the Church 3.23.3,
who attributes these lines (correctly) to the second book.
They, however, that they may establish their false
opinion regarding that which is written, to proclaim the acceptable year
of the Lord, maintain that he preached for one year only, and then suffered
in the twelfth month. They are forgetful to their own disadvantage, destroying
his whole work and robbing him of that age which is both more necessary and
more honorable than any other, that more advanced age, I mean, during which
also as a teacher he excelled all others. For how could he have had disciples
if he did not teach? And how could he have taught unless he had reached the
age of a master? For when he came to be baptized he had not yet completed his
thirtieth year, but was beginning to be about thirty years of age; for thus
Luke, who has mentioned his years, has expressed it: Now Jesus was, as it were,
beginning to be thirty years old* when he came to receive baptism); and [they
affirm that] he preached only one year reckoning from his baptism; on completing
his thirtieth year he suffered, being in fact still a young man, and who had
by no means attained to advanced age.
But that the age of thirty years is the prime of life for a youth,
and it extends up to the fortieth year, everyone will allow it to be confessed; but from the
fortieth and fiftieth year it declines already into the senior age, which our Lord had while
he was teaching, just as the gospel and all the elders, who had dwelled with John the
disciple of the Lord in Asia, testify that John delivered. For he remained with them until
the times of Trajan. But some of them saw, not only John, but also other apostles, and
heard these same things from them, and testify concerning the previously related
* Refer to Luke 3.23.
As for John remaining until the times of Trajan, refer also to
Irenaeus, Against Heresies
Sed et quae est Ephesi ecclesia a Paulo quidem fundata,
Iohanne autem permanente apud eos usque ad Traiani tempora, testis est
verus apostolorum traditionis.
But also the church in Ephesus, which was founded
by Paul, and having John remaining among them all the way up until the
times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.
From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.5.1
(Greek from John of Damascus, Sacred Parallels;
Ubi ergo primus positus est homo? scilicet in paradiso,
quemadmodum scriptura dicit: Et plantavit deus paradisum in Eden contra
orientem, et posuit ibi hominem quem plasmavit. et inde proiectus est in
hunc mundum, non obediens. quapropter dicunt presbyteri, qui sunt
apostolorum discipuli, eos qui translati sunt illuc translatos esse;
iustis enim hominibus et spiritum habentibus praeparatus est paradisus,
in quem et Paulus apostolus asportatus audivit sermones inenarrabiles,
quantum ad nos in praesenti; et ibi manere eos qui translati sunt usque
ad consummationem, coauspicantes incorruptelam.
Where then was the first man1 placed? Clearly in
paradise,2 just as it is written: And God planted paradise2 in the
east, in Eden, and placed there the man1 whom he had formed.3
And thence he
was cast out into this world for failure to obey. Therefore the elders, the disciples of the
apostles, say that those who have been translated are translated thither, for
paradise2 was prepared for just and spirit-borne men1, to which
[place] the apostle Paul also was carried and heard words not to be uttered,4
as to us in the
present; and those who have been translated remain there until the consummation,
1 Or human.
2 Or the garden.
3 Refer to Genesis 2.3.
4 Refer to 2 Corinthians
From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.30.1
(Greek from a combination of Eusebius,
History of the Church 5.8.5,
and Nicephorus; Schoedel 3):
His autem sic se habentibus, et in omnibus
antiquis et probatissimis et veteribus scripturis numero hoc posito, et
testimonium perhibentibus his, qui facie ad faciem Iohannem viderunt,
et ratione docente nos, quoniam numerus nominis bestiae secundum Graecorum
computationem per literas quae in eo sunt, sexcentos habebit, et sexaginta,
et sex, hoc est, decadas aequales hecatontasin, et hecatontadas aequales
monasin. numerus enim qui digitus sex, similiter custoditus, recapitulationes
ostendit universae apostasiae eius quae initio, et quae in mediis temporibus,
et quae in fine erit; ignoro quomodo erraverunt quidam sequentes
idiotismum, et medium frustruntes numerum nominis, quinquaginta numeros
deducentes, pro sex decadis unam decadam volentes esse.
But these things being so, and since this number stands in all the
earnest and ancient copies, and since the very men who had seen John with their own
eyes testify to it, and since the word teaches us that the number of the name of the beast
according to the counting of the Greeks through the letters in it is six hundred sixty-six,
that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds,
and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units, for that
number which expresses the digit six being adhered to throughout
indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full
extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate
periods, and which shall take place at the end.
I do not know how some erred, having followed a private [reading], and have set aside
the middle number of the name, taking away a count of fifty and wishing there to be a
single ten instead of six tens.
From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.33.3
Praedicta itaque benedictio ad tempora regni sine
contradictione pertinet, quando regnabunt iusti surgentes a mortuis, quando et creatura
renovata et liberata multitudinem fructificabit universae escae, ex rore caeli et ex
fertilitate terrae, quemadmodum presbyteri meminerunt, qui Iohannem discipulum
domini viderunt, audisse se ab eo, quemadmodum de temporibus illis docebat
The blessing thus predicted pertains, without [fear of]
contradiction, to the times of the kingdom, when the just, rising from the dead,
will reign, when even the creation, renewed and liberated, will produce a multitude
of foods of all kinds from the dew of heaven and the fertility of the earth, just as the
elders who saw John the disciple of the Lord remembered that they had heard from
him how the Lord would teach about those times....
See also the fuller text of this passage as applies to
Against Heresies 5.36.1-2a
(Greek from Anastasius, appendix to
Investigations in Sacred Scripture
74; Schoedel 5):
Et quemadmodum presbyteri dicant, tunc qui digni fuerint
coelorum conversatione, illuc transibunt, id est, in coelos; alii tute
paradisi deliciis utentur; alii autem speciositatem civitatis possidebunt;
ubique autem deus videbitur, et quemadmodum digni erunt videntes eum.
esse autem distantiam hanc habitationis eorum qui centum fructificaverunt,
et eorum qui sexaginta, et eorum qui triginta; quorum quidam in coelum
assumentur, alii in paradiso conversabuntur, alii in civitate inhabitabunt;
et propter hoc dixisse dominum multas esse apud patrem mansiones. omnia
enim dei sunt, qui omnibus aptam habitationem praestat.
And as the elders say, at that time1 also will those deemed worthy of a dwelling
in heaven find a place there, and others will enjoy the luxury of paradise, and yet others will have
the brightness of the city. But everywhere the savior will be seen, just as those who see him will
be worthy. And [they say] that this is the difference in housing of those who bear the fruit of
a hundred, those who bear the fruit of sixty, and who bear the fruit of thirty.2 Some will
be received up to the heavens, others will dwell in paradise, and others will house in the city.
And on account of this the Lord has said that in those of my father there are many mansions.3
For all things are of God, who supplies for all their harmonious houses.
1 Id est, at the time of the new heavens
and new earth of Isaiah 66.22.
2 Refer to Matthew 13.8 = Mark 4.8 = Luke 8.8.
3 Refer to John 14.2.
From Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.36.2b
Hanc esse adordinationem et dispositionem eorum qui salvantur,
dicunt presbyteri apostolorum discipuli, et per huiusmodi gradus proficere, et per spiritum
quidem ad filium, per filium autem ascendere ad patrem, filio deinceps cedente patri opus
suum, quemadmodum et ab apostolo dictum est: Quoniam oportet regnare eum quoadusque
ponat omnes inimicos sub pedibus eius.
The elders, the disciples of the apostles, say that this is the order and
disposition of those who are being saved, and that they progress through such grades, and that
through the spirit some ascend to the son, but that through the son some ascend to the father.
the son then finally ceding his work to the father, just as also it is said by the apostle: For it
is necessary that he reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet.
Schoedel translates two similar passages from Irenaeus, Declaration of the Apostolic Preaching, a work which survives only
in Armenian. I do not know Armenian, so can offer only the English translation of
each of these passages.
From Irenaeus, Declaration of the Apostolic Preaching
3 (Schoedel 7):
Now it is faith that does this for us, as the elders, the disciples of the
apostles, have handed down to us.
The rule of faith follows.
From Irenaeus, Declaration of the Apostolic Preaching
61 (Schoedel 8):
As to the union and concord and tranquility of the animals, who are of different
kinds and by nature hostile to each other and inimical, the elders say that it will indeed
be so at the coming of Christ when he will rule over all.
From Irenaeus, Against Heresies
Quemadmodum audivi a quodam presbytero, qui
audierat ab his qui apostolos viderant, et ab his qui didicerant, sufficere
veteribus de his quae sine consilio spiritus egerunt eam quae ex scripturis
As I heard from a certain presbyter, who had
heard it from those who had seen the apostles, and from those who had
been their disciples, the punishment in scripture was sufficient for
the ancients concerning the things they did without the counsel of the
History of the Church
And [Irenaeus] also makes mention of the memoirs of
a certain apostolic presbyter, whose name he passes by in silence, and sets
forth his exegeses of the divine scriptures.
Clement of Alexandria.
Late century II.
Clement also transmits a tradition under the
name of the elders. From Eusebius, History of the Church 6.14.4-7:
Then under that he says further: But already, as the
blessed elder used to say, since the Lord, being an apostle of the almighty,
was sent toward Hebrews, Paul through modesty, as one sent to the gentiles,
does not inscribe himself as apostle of Hebrews, both through honor toward
the Lord and on account that he wrote the epistle to the Hebrews from his
abundance, being a preacher and apostle of gentiles.
And again in the same books Clement sets the tradition
of the earliest elders concerning the order of the gospels, in this way: He
says that those of the gospels having the genealogies were published openly,*
but that the gospel according to Mark had this economy: While Peter was
preaching the word publicly in Rome and speaking out the gospel by the
spirit, those who were present, who were many, called upon Mark, as
having followed him from far back and remembering what was said, to write up
the things that were said, and having made the gospel he gave it out to those
who had requested it. When Peter came to know, he neither directly prevented
nor encouraged it. But John, last of all, knowing that the bodily facts had
been made clear in the gospels, urged by friends, borne by the spirit of God,
made a spiritual gospel. So much for Clement.